DEFCON, or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and ...

DEFCON, or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and ...

For the sake of the free world, pray I'm never given control of a nuclear-capable Africa. I've run some numbers through The Simulator, and I'm pretty sure I'd be able to hold the world hostage with a few carefully-placed missile silos and a small navy's worth materiel, brought to me from Russia, with love. The trick is to protect Cairo and Kinshasa; the rest of the continent, if you're an aspiring madman at least, falls well into the "acceptable loss" category. And hey, if you're lucky, your missile shield will knock down the nukes headed toward western Africa, anyway. Look upon me, Western Culture, and tremble at the monster you created.

But alas, the chances of me getting into African politics are about as good as the African Union forming a cohesive government with enough cash to put together the resources I would need to turn the continent into a true world power. Instead, I'm relegated to The Simulator, codenamed DEFCON. But to really understand DEFCON, we have to travel back in time to 1983, when the world met Matthew Broderick and Joshua.

The movie was WarGames. Broderick played a young hacker who blundered into a Defense Department mainframe. The machine, named Joshua, offered a list of games Broderick could play, ranging from tic-tac-toe to chess to "Global Thermonuclear War." Naturally, Broderick opted to play the latter, which isn't a game at all, but rather the program that initiates the launch sequences of all the ICBMs in the country and points them directly at Russia. Hijinks ensue, and I'm far enough beyond the statute of spoiler limitations to say Broderick manages to deactivate Joshua, saving the world from the ending in Dr. Strangelove.

But WarGames planted a terrible seed in my head. Namely, what if everything went up in a brilliant flash leaving nothing but radioactive glass in its wake? What if someone did The Button?

What if I was the one to push it?

In DEFCON, I'm able to find out. Much like a few of my recurring dreams, I'm a chess player on the world stage, but a world map is the board, and my pieces, when they reach their destination uninterrupted, explode in giant mushroom clouds and kill millions of innocent people.

First reaction: cool! Second reaction: I think I need to see a psychologist.

Developed by Introversion, the guys behind Uplink and Darwinia, DEFCON throws you into a global conflict with an unavoidable outcome: global thermonuclear war. It takes its name from the acronym for Defense Condition, which describes the general level of armed forces readiness and ranges from 5 to 1, 5 being normal peacetime conditions, 1 being a land invasion on U.S. soil.

You begin your short-lived regime staring at a vector-drawn map of the world. From this vantage point, you're able to see faint squares dotting the map. As you zoom in, the squares come into focus and reveal they're cities; the larger the square, the larger the city population. A standard game is score-based, and bigger cities earn you more points if you nuke them as opposed to smaller ones.

Rather than worrying about resource management and defense budgets, you start off with a limited number of radar towers, airbases, nuclear missile silos (which double as anti-missile batteries when not launching ICBMs), and nuclear-capable submarines and bombers, which you place on the map before any shots are fired. Instead of build orders and resource gatherers, you're forced to focus more on quick operational strategy: DEFCON has a time limit.

Each level of the DEFCON lasts a certain amount of time; DEFCON 5 and 4 (peacetime) last just long enough for you to get your defenses up and your troops on the ground, and by the time you tick into DEFCON 3, your enemies are moving their navies around the map, which you're free to engage. DEFCON 2 gives you just enough time to figure out how much you lost in your naval battles, and then DEFCON 1 hits and the fireworks start.

You spend the majority of your time at DEFCON 1, where ICBMs zoom across the map, submarines try to avoid naval detection as they fire short-range nukes into ports, and bombers avoid enemy fighters and missile batteries to take out sparsely defended cities. The combat is slow-moving, but there's so much of it going on, it's still difficult to keep up. You feel like a cross between an air traffic controller and a professional StarCraft player, only you're trapped in the early '80s, and the Russkies finally decided to make it a shooting war.

The speed, actually, is what makes DEFCON stand out. Play Warcraft III, and if you screw up your first 30 seconds, you're pretty much toast. In DEFCON, however, much of the outcome of the game is dependent upon late-game timing and patience. I've been able to rally from horrendous starts (hint: forgetting to defend Tokyo was a pretty bad mistake) to still salvage a win.

Not to mention the abject terror in which you sit as you watch an enemy nuke glide toward your most populous city, praying your missile battery is able to knock it down. It's five seconds of pure terror, and it happens at least 15 times every game.

As far as actual strategy goes, DEFCON delivers big on operational, strategic and tactical levels. Since there's no upgrade system, you're forced to improvise with what you have, rather than memorize the quickest path to badass nukes. Industry Relations Guru Shannon Drake and I were playing a game, and after I managed to take out the majority of his missile silos, he kept things close by poking around with his subs to take out my undefended cities while I flailed around with fighter jets looking for him. You just don't see stuff like that in the really fast-paced stuff.

The game is also one hell of a spectator sport. The guys in the office who weren't graced with review copies looked on in glee as those of us at the helm exploded each other into frantic oblivion. They cheered when nukes reached their targets and groaned when bombers were shot down inches away from flattening a city. Especially when it's a Russian city.

There's something about what the game bottles that strikes a chord with those of us who are old enough to remember the Cold War. I was young when the Berlin Wall came down, but my earliest years were darkened by impending Doom from the East, the very real fact that we were all a communications breakdown away from Mutually Assured Destruction. To finally see it happen, to make it happen, is both terrifying and cathartic, like those moments when you're freefalling off a high dive: You've given yourself over to entropy, but you've overcome your fear of stepping into it. That chaos is where DEFCON lives, and it's a great place to visit.


Defcon is a fun game. Not much of a learning curve either which is really nice but it's the little things that effect whether you win or lose. And I am of the opinion that some territories are just harder than others to defend, or maybe it's just me because I just can not find a way to defend the North American territory espcially when getting attacked my multiple territories.

It's just to many major cities to spread out with high populations. If anyone has tip please share.

This game is, perhaps, the best ten bucks I've ever spent on a game outside the bargain bin.

We should set up a few games.

I apologize to my continents population in advance as in large games it isn't my goal to win so much as it is to get one sub fleet outside of every major port city in the game. I do this late in the game when I think by that point the city I attack doesn't have enough defenses left to shoot down all six subs launching missiles at the city. I do this just to screw somebody over often at the sake of my own continent. If my missile defenses happen to protect me enough that I win, well that's all well and good, but I'm not about to build any carriers or battleships to defend myself. I do have one airbase that just sends out fighters to defend my area (especially helpful in North America) that later sends out bombers when my icbms start sending out nukes.

I do win sometimes and man is this game fun. I hope the staff that enjoyed watching plopped down the 10 bucks to play this game when it finally came out.

Lex Darko:
It's just to many major cities to spread out with high populations. If anyone has tip please share.

The problem with North America is that your bombers are largely out of range of interesting targets, or their flight time is so long that they're bound to get shot down by the fleets loitering offshore or the missile batteries waiting over the coast. You're largely restricted to submarines and ICBMs. The best strategy I've seen for NA is to put about two missile batteries to defend the West Coast, one to defend the East Coast, and then put the rest in either Canada or the US Midwest where no one will notice them and fighters will be hard pressed to find them. Then you need to make an ally. South America is a good candidate, but odds are you're going to be in a slugfest with them from the beginning. From there, I'd pursue a late game strategy. I wasn't playing North America in this particular game, but let me tell you, there's a certain feeling of cold, cold fear when you realize you've only found 3 of North America's silos, it's getting close to the end of the game, and they have tons of nukes left. If you can play the defensive game right (and I can't), NA is a good place to turtle.

Bongo Bill:
This game is, perhaps, the best ten bucks I've ever spent on a game outside the bargain bin.

We should set up a few games.

Yes! Hopefully the review build will play nicely with the retail version. I'm holding off on making an actual purchase until the Mac client is up and running. That way, I can play DEFCON in an airport!

I got into a game with Shannon and Joe late Friday evening, after they'd played a game or two against (and with) each other. The game started merrily enough, with Joe forming an early alliance with me, to crush the North American menace. Joe being South America, was able to pummel Shannon's beaches and navy liberally. I however, as Russia, was slowly making my nautical way east and west over Eurasia - intending to slide down through the Atlantic, and poke through the Bering Straight and pinch Shannon between my fleets. Boats are slow.

Unsurprisingly, Joe betrayed me (But continued to attack Shannon).

Unfortunately, I didn't realize I had ICBMs (Yeah, duh), so I didn't launch any. I patiently waited until (eventually) my navies were in range of both of them, and launched all my nuke bombers and fired my sub nukes - wreacking havoc, and placing myself in second place.

Then, with Shannon and Joe having expending their land-based nukes on each other, and the marine nukes on too-good defenses, it seemed everyone was out of weapons.

Then I noticed the defense silos were actually ICMB launch platforms.

I still had 50 (intercontinental) nukes. I had enough weapons left to target every city owned by Joe and Shannon twice, and every military installation thrice. Tee Hee.


Unfortunately, I guess nuclear winter set in, and obscured the targets, as the game timer ran out while (literally) every nuke I had was in flight, en route to nuclear devasation. Joe won the game, but he had stared death in the eye, and his name was Slartibartfast.

The funniest part about that is I was sitting here going "Gosh, I don't think he's fired any nukes. I'm really surprised he's playing such a conservative game" for about an hour. (Landslide is the person in our tabletop group who resolves any situation with overwhelming firepower, so it's unusal to see him waiting patiently for his moment to strike).

Unfortunately, Jon forgets that the victors write the history books.

Shannon and Jon teamed up on me, then Shannon jumped ship after I flattened his western cities, but I told him to get bent and pretty much spent the rest of the game making sure he didn't score a single point. Then, he started in with his submarine trick.

Luckily, it all worked out because Jon forgot about his missiles.


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